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The Lipinsky Auditorium of UNC Asheville was almost filled for a performance of the Langston Hughes epic poem “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” in its full realization by the noted jazz scholar Dr. Ronald C. McCurdy. The poem was read by McCurdy, who also led a skilled jazz quartet of Los Angeles musicians. UNC Asheville Office of Cultural & Special Events sponsored the event in collaboration with the YMI Cultural Center and others. Gary Bradley and the young YMI Community Jazz Band played a set of composed jazz works before the main event.
“Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” is a monumental multi-media project that memorializes the artistic productivity of the African-American community, with special emphasis on the Harlem Renaissance. In the margins of his 800-line epic poem, Hughes had indicated the jazz styles that were to be used to accompany each of the twelve sections. The notes called for blues, New Orleans jazz, boogie-woogie, cha-cha, calypso, African drumming and gospel. He probably intended his friend Charles Mingus to provide the full music. That did not happen, no doubt due to the magnitude of the task.
The work was not performed in Hughes’ lifetime. He died in 1967, six years after writing the poem. The work is now on tour with a powerful accompaniment of jazz and images arranged by Dr. McCurdy, who chairs the jazz department of the University of Southern California. The jazz quartet consists of McCurdy on trumpet, Eli Brueggemann on piano, Edwin Livingston on string bass and Lorca Hart on drums. UNC-A had fulfilled the demands of McCurdy for a professional sound and lighting crew, video projection equipment, a sizable projection screen center stage, 1500 watts sound reinforcement system and house speakers, high quality microphones and multiple stage monitor mixes. As a result, the performance went off without a detectable hitch.
The visual effect comes from the projection of still and moving images, mostly of the Harlem Renaissance, created by Romare Bearden, Gordon Parks and other African-American photographers. Parks’ images are particularly apt for this work, since he was a jazz performer as well as an author, film maker and renowned still photographer. The music is a realization of Hughes’ intention orchestrated by McCurdy. After a solo introit by McCurdy, nine of the twelve interludes are composed by McCurdy, Brueggemann, or by these two collaboratively. Two of the remaining three are percussion solos composed by Peter Buck and the “eleventh mood” is the W.C. Handy “Hesitation Blues” performed brilliantly by Brueggemann.
McCurdy entered the hall from the back, playing his trumpet on his way through the crowd and up to the stage. Then came the stanzas of the poem, alternating with jazz. The topics were hard-hitting. African visitors ask why Americans know so little about the accomplishments of their black citizens. “Pigmeat” replaces “pigment” in the text. Images of Harriet Tubman and Niagara Falls accompany a reflection on escape to Canada. Affluent African-Americans in the suburbs are asked if they can recommend a maid. (The answer is “Ask your mama.”) “Is it true that Negroes...?” (The answer is “Ask your mama.”) Impoverished youngsters in Harlem want to go to the movies. (The answer is “Ask your mama.”) “Did you vote for Nixon?” (The answer is “I voted for mama.”)
If one had to choose the high points, they might be “Drums for Your Mama” played by Hart, “Madeleine’s Lullaby” composed and performed on muted trumpet by McCurdy, and the “Hesitation Blues” in an outstanding piano solo by Brueggemann. The concluding “Show Fare, Please” wrapped up the work admirably with a recapitulation of images seen earlier in the suite accompanied by fine rideout.
In summary, we were treated to a successful fusion of a major American poem, quality fine arts photography and first-rate West Coast jazz. Ron McCurdy has completed the work begun by Langston Hughes. A poem by the finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance has become a multi-media magnum opus, as the poet intended, and we were there.